Published on October 3, 2013 by Amy
Dr. Adam Fortunate Eagle L.H.D. (born Adam Nordwall), hereditary member of the Ojibwa Nation, is a Native American activist and was the principal organizer of the 1969-71 occupation of Alcatraz Island by “Indians of All Tribes.”
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Born on the Red Lake Native American Reservation in 1929, Nordwall was the son of a Swedish man and Chippewa Woman. At the age of five, his father died and left his mother no choice but to send all of her children away to Boarding School. He took advantage of his time at the school and improved many skills that would help him later in life as well as escaping the Depression, famine, and disease that were running rampant on reservations at the time. He attended the Haskell Institute in Kansas where he met his future wife and Shoshone Indian, Bobbie.
After marrying his wife Bobbie, the Nordwalls moved to San Francisco in 1951. Nordwall worked as a licensed termite inspector and by the late 1960s he owned his own company called the First American Termite Company. Although living a comfortable life Nordwall felt that he and his family needed to learn and discover more about who they were as Native Americans. He became more involved in local Indian affairs and became chairman of the United Bay Area Council of American Indian Affairs, Inc. It was at this time that he proposed the takeover of Alcatraz.
Nordwall began to seriously plan the takeover of Alcatraz and he met with Richard Oakes, a local student activist, at a Halloween party at Tim Findley’s house in 1969. He proposed the date of November 9 and Oakes agreed to get as many students as he could. Nordwall took care of providing transportation to the island. However on the date none of the ships were there and the press were wary of the Indians all dressed up in their tribal wear. Nordwall found a captain who seemed interested in the events of the day and talked him into providing transportation. He agreed but said he would not dock on Alcatraz, to this Nordwall agreed. Once near shore, Richard Oakes seized the moment and jumped overboard, followed by a few of his fellow students. Nordwall stayed behind and watched as Oakes and his band struggled to make it to shore. The captain returned to shore a little while later.
Nordwall was not satisfied with just having been around the island and wanted to go back. Oakes and his fellow students were returned by the Coast Guard, and Nordwall asked if they wanted to give it another go that night. So once again Nordwall, Oakes and some two dozen Indians set off for Alcatraz. As they approached stormy weather and a watchdog caused the captain to become wary. Richard Oakes and three women managed to get off, Nordwall was left on the ship with the remaining Indians. On the day of the actual takeover Nordwall was out of town, but on Thanksgiving he came riding across the bay standing on the prow of his ship exactly like George Washington. Although he never lived on the island Nordwall helped from the shores and was able to get assistance to those on the island and keep the press reporting on the occupation while at the same time bringing to light the plight of the Native Americans. Nordwall was still active in Native American affairs after the Alcatraz occupation. He served mostly as a liaison between the Bay Area Council and the press.
“An interesting switch was pulled yesterday by Adam Nordwall, an American Chippewa chief. As he descended his plane from California dressed in full tribal regalia, Nordwall announced in the name of the American Indian people that he was taking possession of Italy ‘by right of discovery’ in the same way Christopher Columbus did in America. ‘I proclaim this day the day of discovery of Italy,’ said Nordwall. ‘What right did Columbus have to discover America when it had already been inhabited for thousands of years? The same right I now have to come to Italy and proclaim the discovery of your country.”
He wrote “The Alcatraz Proclamation to the Great White Father and his People,” which states that the goal of the occupiers was to create a center for Native American studies, an American Indian spiritual center, an Indian center of ecology, and a great Indian training school, none of which came to be on the island.
While the occupation of Alcatraz seemed a failure on the surface, the federal policy of termination of all tribes ended in 1971, and self-determination became the new policy. Many consider the Alcatraz occupation the beginning of the “Red Power” movement. Most recently, Fortunate Eagle performed the voice of Sitting Bull in the feature-length documentary, “Sitting Bull: A Stone in My Heart”. He is also the subject of a new feature-length documentary called “Contrary Warrior: The Life and Times of Adam Fortunate Eagle”, and has recently completed a book on his experiences as an Indian boarding school titled “Pipestone: “My Life in An Indian Boarding School”.
He is the father of poet nila northSun.
Nordwall now lives on the Paiute-Shoshone Reservation where his wife was born. He now hones his skills as a pipe maker, sculptor, and author. He is a ceremonial leader and leading statesman for his people. He is heralded as one of the greatest Indians of his generation.